How representations of women in the media affect the genders and does it produce a panoptic effect?
We see images from the media everyday and it’s interesting how without being aware it can effect how individuals view themselves and their place in society. This essay looks at how patriarchal images within the media play a role in influencing women in and out of the spotlight and how they’re manipulated to act in a certain way that is suggested through advertising, journalism and art. Theories of ‘The Gaze’ and ‘Panopticism’ will be explored and how the media can be linked with them. Supported by theorists Rosalind Coward and Michael Foucault.
The objectification of women is to deny the individual and to look at others as if they were objects. This has taken place through art for hundreds of years, due to the undeniable male dominance in art production up until the 20th century, that still carries on today through the mechanisms of media. The entertainment industry is dominated by men, ‘While I don't wish to suggest there's an intrinsically male way of making images, there can be little doubt that the entertainment as we know it is crucially predicated on a masculine investigation of women, and circulation of women's images for men’ (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.33), visual culture is aimed towards this, culture is gendered. Because of the high quota of male artists during the earlier period this led to art being created by men, for men, which created the artistic genre of ‘the nude’, this is not a natural depiction of the female form but a male fantasy. Art historians who are also men, celebrate how beautiful this genre is within their writing, conveying their opinion that the female form is beautiful and more worthy of artistic study. Because of the critic’s high status and how they describe this style of art, the pornographic function is disguised and the male objectification is justified by removing the sleazy connotations, it therefore retains the persona of class. As well as sexually objectifying women ‘the nude’ genre and the ideas behind ‘the gaze’ are fundamentally about the power dynamic between genders. Through this portrayal of women as a passive and docile sex object, society has come to believe and at times insist that these are the traits of women. Therefore allowing males to retain the control and power over them and take advantage of the notion that women are subservience to the male. Another female persona created by the male artists through art is vanity, women are commonly posed looking into a mirror and are mocked by the male audience. Even though men construct this vision and it’s a tactic used so that the model can’t return their gaze, as it’s being reflected back at her, this allows men to feel more at ease and comfortable looking. An example of this is Hans Memling’s ‘Vanity’ (image 1), where the woman stands nude, gazing into the mirror, this legitimises the male looking at her in this way as it reinforces that women are objects to be viewed. Her eyes are also reflected back at herself, this makes her eye line averted from the viewer so she does not challenge their gaze. Instead she looks away in a passive manner accepting the gaze of the male, which strongly supports Berger’s statement that ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,’ (Berger, 2008). Although it can be argued that this idea isn’t entirely true, but has just been accepted by society because of how images of women are portrayed, ‘This assertion of women’s greater narcissism has been largely unchallenged, because at one level it appears so accurate.’ (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.37). It’s more likely that the reflection of images is more a representation of discontent rather than a fascination of their own image.
This idea of ‘the gaze’ has continued into the modern society, through advertising. Previously artworks would have only been accessible to the upper classes due to the high status, but now with the development of media it’s available to be seen by the masses and therefore can affect more of the population. Modern advertising has taken a different approach to ‘the gaze’, women no longer avert their eyes in a docile manner but challenge the look of the audience.
One theorist that has written about ‘The Gaze’ is Rosalind Coward. Her notes can describe how this type of advertising affects the female audience. From the constant imagery that’s visible daily and the back up from hundreds of years previous, women can feel trapped within this ideal. This theory is described by R. Coward ‘Women's experience of sexuality rarely strays far from ideologies and feelings about self-image. There's a preoccupation with the visual image - of self and others - and a concomitant anxiety about how these images measure up to a socially prescribed ideal’ (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.33). Because of how women have been portrayed for hundreds of years they now believe this is how they should act and are constantly comparing themselves to each other and the images they see in the media. It can be argued ‘it’s unlikely that the media has a direct and straightforward affect on its audiences. It’s unsatisfactory to just assume that people somehow copy or borrow their identities from the media,’ (D, Gauntlett, 2008, p.1). Although this image has been taken so seriously because of how visually dominated our society is, everywhere you look imagery full of hidden messages scream back at you. People have become so reliant on looking that it has affected the relationships we have with other people, ‘In this society, looking has become a crucial aspect of sexual relations, not because of any natural impulse, but because it is one of the ways in which domination and subordination are expressed’ (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.34). Appearances are important in our culture as a natural reaction but also as a form of domination. Many images in the media play on this idea of male dominance over women like this Dolce & Gabbana advertising campaign (image 2), which plays on the stereotypical idea of male dominance. The female’s lying down position and her physicaly restrained interaction with the male gives the impression of submission and the thrust of her hips looks as if she is willing to give herself sexually. It could be said that this form of passive, sexual behaviour is no longer a conscious thought, but something that has been programmed into her personality and that she’s acting in a way that is expected of her. As she stares away vacantly, the men within the image gaze at her intently, ‘The relations involved in looking enmesh with coercive beliefs about the appropriate sexual behaviour for men and women’ (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.34), by constantly viewing imagery like this genders are forced into dominant and submissive roles. This area of industry is still male dominated, so images like this will continue to be created as they provide a reminder of male dominance, ‘The saturation of society with images of women has nothing to do with men's natural appreciation of objective beauty, their aesthetic appreciation, and everything to do with and obsessive recording and use of women's images in ways which make men comfortable’ (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.34). It allows men to retain their power and gives a heightened belief of their status over women, “Clearly this comfort is connected with feeling secure or powerful. And women are bound to this power precisely because visual impressions have been elevated to the position of holding the key to our psychic well-being, our social success, and indeed to whether or not we will be loved” (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.34). Made to make men confident but to make women anxious to conform, bringing the fantasy to life because the women feel they need to act this way to be accepted.
It can be considered that does this style of imagery help the male gender and their quest for power or hinder them? The anxiety it creates for women is very clear but it’s in fact a joint feeling, even if it’s for different reasons. ‘Men defend their scrutiny of women in terms of the aesthetic appeal of women. But this so-called aesthetic appreciation of women is nothing less than a decided preference for a 'distanced' view of the female body’ (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.34), this makes real women become unobtainable. This role of being a viewer gives total control and power, ‘Voyeurism is a way of taking sexual pleasure by looking at rather than being close to a particular object of desire, like a Peeping Tom and Peeping Tom's can always stay in control’ (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.34). It seems confusing why men would prefer this fantasy relationship, but it’s because they have become so comfortable with viewing women with an uninterrupted gaze via imagery and therefore find it more preferable than the real thing. ‘Perhaps this sex-at-a-distance is the only complete secure relation which men can have with women. Perhaps other forms of contact are too unsettling’ (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.34), this shows the insecurity men can feel within a real relationship. The images within the media portray males as the powerful gender and they could feel under pressure to live up to this macho ideal. Scenes from advertisements are plastered across billboards and magazines, with the male’s strong physique and posture over a woman, a reminder of their authority. A perverted voyeurism of sex has been created and with men so used to seeing rather than doing has it left a sense of disappointment within the real world? ‘Turning back the sheets on the twentieth-century bed, sexology found a spectacle of incompetent fumbling and rampant discontent with 'doing it'’ (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.35), this unobtainable idea can make both genders feel discontent.
An advertisement that can be applied to the theories of Coward is the 1999 ad by Wonderbra (image 3). The model looks straight at the camera, without averting her eyes and has an assertive pose, very different from meek persona of before. This image appeals to women as it reflects an assertive femininity and gives a sense of the power they could achieve. By the model stating that she ‘can’t cook’ it allows the female audience to believe that it isn't essential to be a domestic goddess and they can be successful without these skills. Although, this advertisement also appeals to men as the semi-naked women is displaying herself to them. With the inability to cook, the women is disappointing the man and therefore compensates with sex. This brings the female form back round to an object, which implies the illusion of women’s independence. Although the idea of femininity has changed dramatically to more of a stereotype of women from the past and what they could be, rather than have to be, ‘Modern women are not generally very bothered about fitting their identity with the idea of ‘femininity’… It is not typically a core value for women today. Instead being ‘feminine’ is just one of the performances that women can choose to employ in everyday life – perhaps for pleasure or to achieve a particular goal,’ (D, Gauntlett, 2008, p.11). Suggesting that women have power within their femininity to control others around them. Although, it could be argued that this style of advertising helps the normalisation of nudity on the streets, allowing other companies to act similarly. It takes the shock factor away and after repeat exposure the audience learns to accept this as the norm, leading the female gender to believe this is how they should look and act and indicates to men that this behaviour is what they should expect.
If we take the media to be an institution it’s easy to apply the factors of the Panopticon onto it. Paparazzi hounds and scything articles written about them constantly pound women within the media. Within this industry journalists have been placed as the institutional experts so society believes what they say, which has given them total power. This allows them to manipulate the public’s interest, which can either make or break a celebrity, leaving the ‘stars’ unable to put a foot wrong in fear of rejection from the press. This forces celebrities into behaving in a certain way so they can be in favour with the publications writing about them to further their career. With the help of the paparazzi, journalists have become an ‘omnipresent and omniscient power’ (M, Foucault, 1977, p.62), with all seeing capabilities similar to that of the Panopticon guards. Turning celebrities into ‘docile bodies’ by training them to act in a certain way and because of the strong male direction of the media this leads women to portray the docile ‘object’ of ‘the gaze.’ An extreme example of this is celebrity glamour models, who appear as a caricature of female sexuality. Their aim is to appeal to men and be presented as a sex object, often being associated with being stupid and vain, which leads to them being mocked by the press for their actions. Another example is the new Internet phenomenon, Valeria Lukyanova (image 4), known as the ‘Human Barbie’. She’s the object of many men’s affections due to her miniscule waist and porcelain doll features. It’s been questioned whether her look is natural or whether she has had cosmetic surgery to fulfill this idea of beauty. It could be said that she changed herself in order to gain the attention of the media that her natural appearance wouldn't have generated. In all of her pictures she is seen with a vacant stare that plays on the male fantasy of an unthreatening female. Maybe this is why she has become more popular with the male gender than the standard glamour model, as her gaze does not challenge the viewer that makes the audience unthreatened and more accepting because of her submissive nature. Although, one similarity that these women share is that they are all on display on the world’s stage, ‘so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualised and constantly visible,’ (M, Foucault, 1977, p.64). They are constantly visible for scrutiny through the Internet and other mechanisms. Similar to the inmates of The Panopticon they are constantly visible and therefore constantly detectable, being in the light is not necessarily being protected, ‘Visibility is a trap,’ (M, Foucault, 1977, p.64). With this threat of detection from the media and paparazzi mixed with the uncertainty of whether they are being watched at any given time creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are ‘Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so,’ (M, Foucault, 1977, p.65), with this fear of being uncovered celebrities must constantly play out their role of the ‘perfect’ image. It can be said that journalists use the branding technique of the panoptic mind set, ‘the assignment to each individual of his 'true' name, his 'true' place, his true 'body'...’ (M, Foucault, 1977, p.62), with this individualisation it makes people much easier to control, locate and discipline, ‘The crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities,’ (M, Foucault, 1977, p.65).
So, how have these two theories of ‘the gaze’ and ‘panopticism’ come together to influence the mindset of today’s society? In the case of women both celebrities and the public are affected by anxiety. The public look at these published images of celebrities and are taken in by their perfect looks and lifestyles and it is transferred to them that this is what they need to be like in order to be successful. The critiques of these ‘stars’ can also be viewed as warnings of how not behave and how your life can crash around you after some poor choices. On the other hand it affects the celebrity in a different way, they may already have this ‘successful’ life but in order to keep it they must not be caught out acting out. With this threat they act within the interests of the media. In both of these instances the women are being controlled and manipulated, but it could be said that this source of control has changed. ‘Where women's behaviour was previously controlled directly by state, family or church, control of women is now also effected through the scrutiny of women by visual ideals,’ (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.39). Historically men have controlled women, whether that is their father, husband or priest and if they stepped out of line they would be punished. Although, now they are being controlled by images of other women in circulation, a more mental constraint. This movement forward reflects the movement of social control exactly, from the physical control of the houses of correction to the mental techniques used within The Panopticon. For example, the physical beatings that were used within houses or correction were a visible form of punishment and display of power, similar to that of the wedding ring, religious iconography or a family name. These would be applied to the identity of the women and demonstrated that they belonged to these social institutions. Although within a modern society the control of women is less visible and lies within their heads, similar to the effect of the invisible Panopticon guards. Inmates and the modern woman are constantly afraid of being scrutinised by an unverifiable source, therefore creating their own self-fulfilling prophecy.
This constant scrutiny of women has led to a boom in the beauty industry, ‘As the unconscious hallucination grows ever more influential and persuasive because of what is now conscious market manipulation; powerful industries – the $33-billion-a-year diet industry, the $20-billion cosmetics industry, the $300-million cosmetic surgery industry and the $7-billion pornography industry – have arisen from the capital made out of unconscious anxieties, and are in turn able, through their influence on mass culture, to use, stimulate and reinforce the hallucination in a rising economic spiral,’ (N, Wolfe, 1991, p.17). Female vanity could be suggested for these big business industries, Freud suggested that women are ‘more narcissistic’ with self-obsessed qualities. However R, Coward contradicts this with ‘Advertisements, health and beauty advice, fashion tips are effective precisely because somewhere, perhaps even subconsciously, an anxiety, rather than a pleasurable identification, is awakened. We take an interest, yes. But these images do not give back a glow of self-love... The faces that look back imply a criticism.’ (Coward in Thomas, 2000, p.37). This implies a pressure upon women to be perfect, they’re not innately vein but are pushed into being so. These advertisements play on contemporary anxieties such as diets, hair colour, flawless skin etc. They suggest to women that to have a happy life they must stick to a beauty regime that dictates their time, they must by these products to have a happy life.
To conclude, it is quite clear that the media has an undoubted influence over society. Forcing pre-concepted ideas onto the male and female viewer. For example the opinion of female narcissism has been created through the portrayal of women through past and present imagery. This has now come to be believed to be true as it has never really been questioned. Advertisements are constantly manipulating the public into the ‘correct’ way to act and behave, which has led to the very clear divide between male and female’s dominant and submissive roles. Which has been proven to create anxiety and discontent for both genders, leading the purpose of this vision to be questioned. Although, this has been around for so many centuries now that it is unlikely that these notions will ever change. With the continuing male dominance within the media, men will continue to hold the power on what is fed into society.